Shakespeare the revolutionary

England's bard saw everyone as a whole human. That makes his plays great: and makes him a great revolutionary.

Jeremy Fox
18 December 2016

King Lear, the Barbican Watching a performance of King Lear at London’s Barbican Theatre, I was struck not for the first time by Shakespeare’s awareness of poverty and inequality. Though his popularity and sheer brilliance during his lifetime kept him safe from the Tower, he was something of a revolutionary, an egalitarian long before the word or any of its strident political equivalents had found their way into our vocabulary. Passages, not only in Lear but in other plays too, show evidence of a strong social conscience – at times stated quite bluntly and at others more subtly through the treatment and shaping of character.

In Lear, part of the learning experience forced upon the eponymous hero, and also on the Earl of Gloucester, is recognition of economic injustice and of their own failures to address  it during their long careers as powerful members of the elite – one a monarch, the other an aristocrat. Thus Gloucester, intent on suicide, hands his purse to his son Edgar, whom he believes to be a beggar, with these words:

Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see

Because he does not feel, feel your pow’r quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.

It is a recipe for progressive taxation, for a generous benefit system, for a National Health Service, for what used to be called the Welfare State.

King Lear on the heath in the midst of a violent storm goes further, as his sudden material impoverishment brings him awareness of the plight of others so afflicted:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm.
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic pomp,
Expose yourself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

Lear’s reflection on his own lack of concern for the poor – “I have ta’en too little care of this…” could not be other than a contemporary reference. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the acceleration of land enclosures in Tudor England which left many people unemployed, the number of vagrants and vagabonds had mushroomed. In 1594, the Lord Mayor of London estimated the number of beggars in the city at 12,000, while tens of thousands more roamed the countryside either as smart-assed rogues like Autolycus in A Winter’s Tale, or ragged vagabonds such as Edgar pretended to be in Lear. Both would have been familiar figures to an Elizabethan/Jacobean audience. Altogether at least a third of the entire population of Shakespeare’s time was estimated to be poor, including those who were nominally in work but badly paid.

Today, with unnumbered refugees from Africa and the Middle East pressing at Europe’s gates, while homelessness, hunger and distress grow within the European citadel, Lear’s and Gloucester’s cry against inequality seems as shockingly relevant to our own time as it undoubtedly was to Shakespeare’s.

How did Shakespeare come to write such lines? Whence the extraordinary range of his sympathies?

We know that he had read Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals” – from which he derived the name of Caliban in The Tempest. In the sixteenth century, the process of discovery and conquest of the New World was in full swing, and stories abounded of the strange creatures who lived there. Though Shakespeare portrayed Caliban as a savage, he also understood native indignation at having their land and inheritance taken by a ‘colonial’ usurper:

 “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother, Which thou tak’st from me”, Caliban tells Prospero.

In the same essay Montaigne writes of an encounter with three natives of Brazil during which the visitors offered a stinging rebuke of the inequality they had observed in France:

“…They noticed how some men were replete with every imaginable commodity while others, impoverished and hungry, went begging at their doors. And they found it strange that the poor tolerated such injustice and wondered why they didn’t seize the wealthy by the throat or set fire to their houses.

It is a theme that Montaigne goes on to address at length in a subsequent essay – “On Inequality among us” in which he questions why we value people by their “wrapping and packaging …which merely hide the characteristics by which we can truly judge someone”. Here, in one of Hamlet’s exchanges with Claudius, is a Shakespearean dramatisation of the same issue:

Hamlet: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
King: What dost thou mean by this?
Hamlet: Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.”

Socio-political injustice was, therefore, neither strange nor novel in 16th century European thought or literature. However, our playwright did not write didactic dramas, nor build his plays as illustrations of good or evil, right or wrong behaviour, or – as one academic put it to me – to induce salutary reactions in the audience via catharsis or laughter. Had he done so he would have been following a long tradition in which dramatic characters had first and foremost a symbolic or illustrative function, that is they represented an idea, or a set of dispositions or feelings that audiences were expected to approve or reject. Such was the case with both Roman and Medieval drama – the major influences on Elizabethan playwrights. Not even Marlowe, among Shakespeare’s contemporaries, contravened this schematic framework. If we examine Marlowe’s treatment of character in Tamburlaine, or the Jew of Malta, or Faustus, we find that the symbolic role of the protagonists takes priority over their qualities as recognisable individuals – flesh and blood human beings.

What Shakespeare did was to reverse the conventional procedure by building from character to meaning, from the individual to the universal. The philosophical equivalent would be inductive instead of deductive reasoning. This is why his characters work so powerfully on our imagination, why Marlowe’s Jew remains a stereotype while Shakespeare’s (despite the prejudices of the age) is a full of personality, while we love Falstaff despite and because of his all-too-human failings, why Hamlet puzzles, angers and frustrates because like us he is insecure, by degrees passionate, cruel, witty, honest, dissembling – a thoroughly human mixture. We meet Shakespeare’s characters in the street, those of his predecessors in our minds. Stage figures of what we might call ‘human complexity’ are a Shakespearean innovation. Only in poetry do we find obvious precedents – for example in Chaucer’s wonderful gallery of portraits and François Villon’s verse “Testaments” – and there are hints also perhaps in early Spanish picaresque fiction such as the anonymous “Lazarillo de Tormes”. But Chaucer and Villon were solely accessible to a select few – those who could both read and were able to acquire books, while Shakespeare worked in a universal medium of communication where only ears were needed.

Why was this “inductive” technique revolutionary rather than merely innovative? I believe the answer lies in the fact that, for the first time, the individual became a focus of public and artistic attention. Shakespearean drama brought previously unattended elements of human nature and of political and social life to the forefront: the quixotic nature and psychology of motive (Cervantes belongs here, too, of course), the individual validity of the common man, human rights of the kind both Ariel and Caliban demand in the Tempest, and so on. Little of this is to be found in other playwrights of the period.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Shakespeare’s plays were criticised for their ‘excesses’, and attempts were made to  improve them by pundits who thought they knew better. What were the objections? Low-life subject-matter (unfit for polite society), lack of taste, improper language – features we might recognise, nowadays, as coming from  ‘East-Enders’ rather than ‘Yes Minister’. Editors and amenders tried to excise precisely those features that show the commonest citizen as the moral equal of the greatest monarch. They were uncomfortable features. Whoever witnesses the downfall of Angelo (Measure for Measure), or the rise of Bolingbroke (Richard II) knows that the high and mighty are not necessarily to be trusted. Perhaps not to be trusted at all. And here we are not just speaking of a lust for and abuse of power (a familiar Elizabethan theme) but about corruption of a kind that brings to earth the moral authority of the powerful. Much more important, though, is that the Shakespearean common man is as full of humanity as a monarch.

Shakespeare wasn’t a pamphleteer aiming to bring about political change. But his view of people was more revolutionary than anything a pamphleteer could achieve. Elizabethan stage convention unthinkingly accepted class values as fixed (as did French classical theatre). Shakespeare did not; though his originality in this respect may sometimes pass unnoticed because it seems so natural. Since the plays deal so powerfully with human emotions and states of consciousness, we can easily overlook the implicit socio-economic and political views that, like scenery, colour their background.

My argument then is that Shakespeare was a revolutionary in the way he treated the individual – and that is precisely why he forces an attentive reader or playgoer to re-examine the basis of his or her beliefs, prejudices and social attitudes. Whatever Elizabethan England thought about Jews, for example, the import of Shylock’s words in The Merchant of Venice can’t be avoided:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

 The speech was quietly and firmly revolutionary, and Shakespeare must have known as much. Revolutionary not because the writer wanted to change contemporary attitudes about Jews – that would be a crudely anachronistic fallacy – but because no one in Shakespeare is “merely” anything, not a Jew, nor a peasant, nor a soldier, nor an inn-keeper nor a bawd, nor a king.

This great idea – that of not being “merely” – has been the basis of much of the political change that has taken place in Europe, North America and elsewhere since the seventeenth century. It lies at the heart of modern democracy, and forms a backcloth to political movements like Marxism and socialism that are founded on ideals of equity and distributive justice.

What Shakespeare helped to bring about was a fundamental change in European consciousness concerning the human condition in the social and political context. I doubt this was his intention; but it is a consequence of his work – of his quiet persistence in giving his characters their head and refusing to censor either them or his own pen.

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